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Maybe the residential schools should just have been better?

Maybe the residential schools should just have been better?

Rooster Town
Rooster TownUniversity of Manitoba
Originally published by the Western Standard on 17 Oct 2023

In the three last decades, most of the attention given to the subject of Indigenous education has been centered on Canada’s Indian Residential Schools.

But other aspects of this important topic have been ignored. Quite simply, the real tragedy of Indigenous education in Canada is not that some Indigenous children went to federally-funded day or residential schools. The real tragedy is that most Indigenous children — First Nations, Metis or Inuit — received inferior education or went to no school at all.

The Métis had it the worst.

The picture above is of ‘Rooster Town.’ That was the name given to the Métis settlement in what were then the southern outskirts of Winnipeg, Manitoba. I remember seeing Rooster Town as a boy in the 1950s.

Even at my young age I knew something was wrong. These squalid shacks did not look at all like the neat little bungalows in the suburb where I lived. It was the first time in my young life that I saw what poverty looked like.

Most Rooster Town residents were squatters. They had no legal right to the land where they built their shacks. They were simply tolerated. Until the city needed the land for development, that is. Then, each family was given $75 and their shacks were bulldozed.

Yes, there were Métis who lived comfortable, middle class lives. But most were poor. And some, desperately so.

There were many desperately poor Métis settlements throughout the prairies, both on the outskirts of cities and in rural areas. Many of them were located on road allowances, where local towns tolerated Métis squatters — until they needed the land for some other purpose. Then the Métis were told to move.

The thing is that most Métis children either didn’t attend school at all or attended only sporadically. One Alberta report estimated that in Alberta in the 1930s, more than 80% of Métis children were not enrolled in a school.

Métis were not eligible for either the federally-funded day schools that existed on most Indian reserves, nor were they eligible for enrolment in an Indian Residential School. Simply put, the federal government took responsibility only for “status Indians”, pursuant to Section 91(24) of The Constitution Act.

The federal government insisted that Métis and other non-status Indians were the responsibility of the provinces. The provinces, for their part, mostly wanted to forget about the Métis. Sharp businessmen swindled them out of their scrip, and they were largely an invisible and forgotten people.

Although some Métis did manage to get into an Indian Residential School or a federal day school (often because some kindly priest or nun sneaked them in), most were kept out of the federally-funded schools.

Sometimes Métis children who had been slipped into a residential school were actually expelled from the school in midterm because an Indian Agent found out that Métis were enrolled.

Because so few Métis were property owners, they also had great difficulty getting their children into provincial public schools. To many hard-nosed municipal politicians, the fact the Métis paid no taxes made their children ineligible for admission to their schools. This is explained in the riveting book, Half Breed, by Maria Campbell.

Maria Campbell’s book “Half Breed”, originally published by McClelland and Stewart in 1973

The result?  For most of the first hundred years after Confederation, Métis children received either a very rudimentary education or no education at all.

And it wasn’t all that much better for status Indians.

Although both day schools and residential schools were established by the Canadian government for the education of status Indian children, few of those enrolled received the quality education necessary to produce the doctors, engineers and other professionals that mainstream Canada was increasingly graduating. Even today, there are relatively few such Indigenous professionals in Canada.

And since a good many status Indian children didn’t even achieve basic literacy,  they remained well behind the general population in overall educational achievement. They remain there today.

It is estimated 150,000 status Indian children attended residential schools and 200,000 attended federal day schools. However, even those numbers are misleading.

The 150,000 who attended an Indian Residential School were enrolled on average for only 4.5 years, and the 200,000 who attended a day school include those children who attended very sporadically or even just on the first day of school. (A common practice on some reserves was to make sure all the children attended on the first day, so the government education grants for those children would be received. After that, it didn’t matter.)

Attendance data obtained from Annual Reports of the Department of Indian Affairs

However, even that total of 350,000 is a small percentage of the millions of Indigenous people who have lived in Canada since 1867. And most received either no education at all or an inferior education.

For both status Indians and Métis, this education deficit was aggravated by the fact that theirs were not “library” cultures. Even sitting and listening to a teacher in a classroom was alien to their cultures.

Most grew up in homes without books and with parents who were semi-literate at best. This inherent deficit was exacerbated by some unfortunate decisions made by Indigenous leaders who put their own personal agendas ahead of needed education reforms. Chief Shawn Atleo’s ouster over his education reform package is a classic example of this shortsightedness.

As a result, Indigenous educational achievement remains far behind the mainstream average.

The attention today all seems to be focused on Indigenous students who attended federally-run schools and had bad experiences. Those individuals have been properly compensated for any abuse they suffered and apologies have been made.

However, the real tragedy — and this bears repeating — is the fact that so many Indigenous children received inferior education — or no education at all. Generations of Indigenous people have thus remained stuck on the bottom rung of Canada’s socio-economic ladder.

Wab Kinew has been recently elected as Premier of Manitoba — the first Indigenous person in Canada to be elected a provincial premier.

What got him there? One word: education.

That’s also the case with other successful Indigenous leaders, individuals like Senator James Gladstone, Phil Fontaine and Jody Wilson-Raybould. Although it is sometimes argued that providing standard education is “Euro-centric”, “colonialist”, or some form of genocide, it is exactly that standard education that is, and always was, the key to success.

As former TRC Commissioner Murray Sinclair famously said, in relation to residential schools, “It is education that got us into this mess. Education will get us out”.

Former TRC Commissioner Murray Sinclair gives a talk on Indian Residential Schools in 2018 at Dalhousie University in Halifax

It is ironic that, for the last three decades, Canada has been consumed with apologizing and compensating those Indigenous children who were fortunate enough to go to a school, when the real problem is that so many never did.

We spent the last few decades focusing on past practices and grievances. Now we should turn our focus toe providing a good education for everyone — and creating a brighter future.

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